Poverty up Close

I mentioned that I am a social worker by training and I’m also a pretty big  joiner so I couldn’t wait to get involved in my new community.  Even before we arrived in Dallas, I was doing research on the internet to find organizations that resonated with me and aligned with my particular interests and values.  In addition to getting started at the community garden,  I signed up for two different volunteer jobs–one with a social service center and one with a reading tutoring program at an elementary school nearby.

Even though I’ve worked in the social work field for most of my adult life, it is still  surprising and sobering to see people’s situations up close and personal. More like heartbreaking at times. At the social service center, we provide food, clothing, and occasional (very limited) financial assistance for rent or utilities.  My primary job is to interview clients, something I am familiar with after many years of social work.  Our doors open at 9 and there is usually a line already formed outside before the lock is turned.  It’s truly amazing to me that individuals are trying to live on $773 a month in Social Security or $650 SSI or two minimum wage jobs to support a family of four.  Sometimes they get a little bit of Food Stamps (SNAP Program)…$16, $20,  sometimes more for a larger family.  Could you do it?  I could not.  Rich and I are living on a reduced income right now since we are not quite old enough to collect Social Security and we don’t want to dip into our savings too much and end up destitute when we are 85.  🙂  But we are still comfortable and we know we’re on a budget by choice so we can always take more money out if we are in a bind.  My clients do not have that luxury.

Visiting a food pantry is a monthly necessity for many because they simply cannot make ends meet on the small amount they bring in. I am starting to recognize some of our clients because they come in regularly. Lest you say, “Get a job,” many are elderly and/or they’re on disability.  I don’t mean that they have headaches.  I mean they are on dialysis or had open heart surgery or cancer or back surgery or debilitating mental illness.  Those who are able are working, sometimes more than one job, but it’s hard to keep up and catch up when a single problem like a broken down car, a water leak, a medical emergency can set the dominoes in motion.  Believe me, the big majority want to work. There are some whom we might think aren’t trying, but we don’t know everything about their lives and their struggles and what has led them here.  I don’t think most of us would would choose to go through the day-in, day-out humiliation that is poverty if given that choice.

Every week I see the saddest situations a person in a so-called advanced society can imagine.  There are people who come in hungry, others are homeless and living in a car, some need decent clothing so they can go on job interviews,  some are parents whose children need school uniforms and supplies, many need soap and toilet paper and toothpaste.  Many are people who will never bring in any more money than they are bringing in right now,  who will never have enough money to buy a car or a home, who stand to lose everything they do have because of a health problem or a reduction in hours at work.  They are people who could be you or me if we were in different circumstances. Maybe that’s why so many of us turn away. We don’t want to think about the idea that it could be us.

Despite their circumstances, most of our clients are upbeat and friendly.  Some say they feel “blessed.”  They look for the positive in a not-so-positive situation, something I admire (and wonder if I could pull off).  They are grateful for the assistance we give, even though it is never enough. Still I am curious about why we are content to create nonprofit programs to serve up boxes of food and racks of used clothing and let us off the hook as a society.  It’s easier to pat ourselves on the back for our charity than to vote for a living wage, improve inner city schools, provide meaningful job training, increase mental health services.  Is the “American dream” only available to certain people and not to others?  Sadly, I think so.

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